Statement of purpose, personal statement, candidate’s admission statement… these terms send a shiver down the spine of many a prospective graduate student who feel at a loss for how to write about themselves effectively.
A graduate school personal statement or similar type of application essay, however, is your opportunity to show the admissions committee what you’re made of. They want to know why you’re applying to their graduate program, and the application essay is your chance to communicate that to them as clearly and compellingly as you can.
How do graduate schools use your application essay?
The graduate school personal statement serves two basic purposes. First, they show whether you know how to write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing ability is often presumed deficient unless proven otherwise.
Second, the application essay gives you the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” perspective of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and GRE numbers possibly can.
What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue graduate work and outline the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to address things that may warrant explanation, such as a dubious grade in an otherwise creditable record.
What does the admissions committee look for?
Reading your graduate school personal statement or statement of purpose is the best way for the admissions committee to determine who you are and whether you would be a good fit for their program. Remember, they’re trying to get a holistic view of your intellectual character, your ambitions, and your academic skills. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond narrow academic experience when searching for essay topics.
Feel free to discuss events or successes outside of school that have nonetheless helped to define your professional or academic life. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.
Learn how to write about yourself
Preparation pays off when considering how to write your graduate school personal statement, so start early. Review your goals and aspirations, write several drafts, and talk to students and professors to gain insight about yourself. Then, give some thought to your goals and how to articulate them compellingly in a statement of purpose.
How will you accomplish those goals? What can you contribute to the graduate school community? What can you contribute to this particular degree program? If you can answer these questions in a clear and concise manner, you shouldn’t be at a loss when it comes time to put pen to paper and write your application essay.
The Most Common Personal Statement Mistake
Today, we’ll address one of the most common mistakes prospective students make when writing their personal statement: answering the wrong question.
The Wrong Question: “Why I Want To Go To Grad School”
If you thought the grad school personal statement is actually a “Why I Want to Go to Grad School” essay, you are not alone. It ranks up there with other false personal statement and application tips like the advice that you should leave your recommenders alone. Like that unhelpful tip, writing that kind of personal statement can prove detrimental to your grad school application.
Should you explain, at some point in your personal statement, why you want to go to grad school? Of course! Grad schools don’t want to admit someone who applies grudgingly, or who only wants to attend because the real world is scary and grad school seems like a good way to pass the time. But is that the primary goal of your essay? Absolutely not.
“Why I want to go to grad school” is a fundamentally forward-thinking question. To answer it, you have to talk about what you want to do and who you want to become. You might have promising visions and compelling aspirations, but grad schools don’t admit the person you’ll become. They admit the person you are right now. That’s who they want to get to know through this piece of your application.
The Real Question: “Why You Should Accept Me Into Your Program”
The question you primarily need to answer is, “Why should you accept me into your program?” You don’t want your personal statement to sound like a sales pitch, because nobody likes being sold to and grad schools aren’t stupid. But a sales pitch is exactly what your personal statement is.
Grad schools want someone who’s hardworking, competent, and mature, and going on and on about why you want to go to grad school won’t give admissions officers reason to believe you’re any of those things. If anything, an essay devoted entirely to explaining why its author wants to go to grad school runs a risk of making that author seem less mature.
The fundamental question that your essay needs to answer — “Why should you accept me into your program?” — can be broken down into three sub-questions: